A Cape Cod Notebook 12/11/07

listenBeach Foam

By Robert Finch

The day after tropical storm Noel strafed the Cape last month, I went out to the ocean to check out the news. I began to walk north beneath the unconsolidated bluffs of the Outer Beach. The wind had abated, but was still strong out of the northeast. Looking up, I could see the utility poles that li ne the cliff road there. Even down on the beach, I heard the wind howling and whining through their wires. In places the road now swings quite close to the edge, and at one point a guy wire on one of the poles had come loose and was flapping wildly in the storm wind. The crossed poles appeared to be moving along with me, just above the trembling, hairy lip of the crest. Their linked, swaying, wires waile d as I walked, and a spooky yellow sun glowered behind them, as though behind frosted glass. The metaphor of ship's masts and rigging was inescapable.

For the next third of a mile the signs of storm damage gradually increased, Here and there along the cliff face, old well casings and fiber waste pipes from former dwellings stuck up or protruded from the slope. Most of the vanished houses to which they once belonged were moved back before destruction overtook them. On the Outer Beach you won't find any abandoned cellar holes, slowly filling in and closing over with mounds of salt-spray rose. Out here a house keeps moving or else it sinks swiftly out of sight without a trace, like a vessel going down at sea.

Eventually I arrived at an area of unusually active erosion: the vegetation on the cliff face was s parse and ragged. Rivers of sand twisted down the banking, leaping up over the more resistant outcrops of clay and splaying out at the bottom in wide deltas. In places whole sections of bluff twenty feet h igh had shelved off.

Occasionally I had to leap up the slope a few feet to avoid a shattering slide of muddy, green surf. The tide continued to come in, and with it came great crashing seas tumbling over one another. They carried rafts of brown mud floating and sliding among milky foam. The curled volutes of the waves themselves were veined with white vertical bands. They look like curved moving walls of jade.

I've noticed that it's when the wind is of "moderate" speed like this, say thirty to fifty miles an hour, that beach foam seems to reach its greatest concentrations. When it does, it becomes a plaything for the wind. The upper beach was strewn with this fluffy wreckage of the sea. It scudded along in large clumps like broken clouds, then was thrown upwards in small bits by the wind, like ashes or small birds. It lay on the sand in large quivering masses flecked with innumerable, tiny, iridescent bubbl es. It came slithering in, like fat, muddy lips at the leading edges of the waves. It slid along the wet s and on a film of its own deliquescence, like ice melting on a hot stove. I picked up great, weightless arm loads of beach foam, tossing it into the wind like autumn leaves to watch it scatter and fly ahead of me o n the beach. I strode through banks of it without resistance, leaving my boots covered with insubstantial, dirty snow. Up against the base of the cliffs, dirty clumps of foam huddled in cracks and crevices, like wads of old newspapers, filled with yesterday's news.